Mark Reviews Movies

The Last Five Years


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, brief strong language and a drug image)

Running Time: 1:34

Release Date: 2/13/15 (limited); 2/20/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 19, 2015

The Last Five Years understands a fundamental thing about musicals: There must be a reason that characters break into song. This often gets lost in the showiness of the big musicals—the ones in which songs erupt for whatever reason, be it to explain some plot point or describe the setting or simply to fill in a gap between the time one song ends and another begins. Here, there are really only two characters, and they sing because there is simply no other way to communicate what they're feeling at the moment.

The film begins with one lover coming to the realization that a romantic relationship has come to a definitive end. The next scene, which goes back five years in time, shows the moment in which the other lover comes to realize that there's something about the woman he's about to take to bed. If you're a character in a musical, what else is there to do in such situations except to sing?

Written and directed by Richard LaGravenese (based on Jason Robert Brown's stage musical), the film is a collection of vignettes about the rise and decline of this relationship. It is essentially wall-to-wall with songs, and that's because every scene here is one in which the characters have a good reason to sing. The structure possesses a simple, foundational, and, yes, circular logic. Every significant moment in the blossoming of a romance is its highest point, and then there comes a time when every, successive moment is the lowest point for the relationship. Then the singing just stops.

The highs and the lows of the love affair between Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) play out consecutively and concurrently here. The film alternates perspectives. Hers plays in reverse, starting with Cathy alone and bemoaning the break-up in a brownstone apartment in New York City with the accompaniment of a solo cello. His memory of the story moves forward, ending with Jamie writing a farewell letter before leaving the same apartment building. Outside, he happens upon the memory of his lover, who is five years younger and filled with a hope for the future that has died in him.

In between, there are moments of unrepressed joy and undiscussed agony. At the mid-point, the viewpoints converge, and there is a pair of scenes showing the relationship's zenith and the beginning of its end. In these scenes, the perspectives become jumbled, as a repeated shot of the couple holding hands gives us the sensation of déjà vu. Neither lover walks into either scene fully realizing the significance of what's to come. The song in the first of those scenes builds to an overwhelming crescendo that marks the first time we hear the two singing in harmony. In the repetition, the song peters out as they realize they have nothing to say—let alone sing—to each other.

The story is simple but never simplistic. We know the how and the when of the split from the start, so the only thing that remains to be answered is the why. As always, within that question rests the meat of the characters.

The structure is gimmicky but with a purpose. The parallel timelines inform each other, as actions and feelings of the past come full circle in the proceeding scene.

The songs are all show-stoppers, thanks to Brown's arrangements and the performances, but also never stop anything. There's a poignant, relentless trajectory within the lyrics, in the connection between the songs, and in the music-less moments between the tunes.

The plot is little more—and no less—than a promising romance that turns sour. The film deconstructs the way little problems can escalate into larger ones and how the larger ones can linger for years before they're addressed—if they are at all before everything collapses.

Both of the lovers have big, nearly impossible dreams. Cathy is an aspiring actress, and Jamie is a struggling writer. Our first glimpse of Cathy's career sees her condemned to the limbo of a summer stock theater company in the boondocks of Ohio. The closest the film comes to a big song-and-dance number comes during one of these scenes, and earlier, LaGravenese jokes about the conceit during one scene in which a group of pedestrians looks as if they're about to start dancing, only to stop short.

Soon after he starts dating Cathy, Jamie gets a call from his agent, who tells him that a major publishing house wants to publish his novel. His career takes off in a flash. His book hits the bestseller list, and he becomes the toast of parties.

Jealousy of both the professional and personal varieties comes into play (Cathy resents Jamie's success and notes how women flock to him at parties), as do temptation (Jamie also notices how women flock to him at those parties) and insincerity (He encourages her to follow her dream, but he won't allow himself to understand how his success makes her feel in light of her string of failures). Brown's songs are invigorating in their diversity (e.g., mournful ballads of loss, a salsa of sexual excitement, an audition piece that becomes a hilarious confession of insecurity, and a waltz of infidelity) and for the level of blunt honesty contained in the lyrics.

Through it all, the two leads act through the songs instead of performing them. This is especially true of Kendrick, who is so effortlessly entrancing and lends such anguished stillness to her role that LaGravenese need only keep the camera locked in close-up (He, wisely, does—and often—for her). Her face marks every emotional beat of a song. Jordan's performance is also quite good, although he possesses a few theatrical flourishes and tics that seem much more noticeable when contrasted with Kendrick (LaGravenese, also wisely, keeps the camera further back for Jordan's solos).

There's a tendency to try to assign blame in the aftermath of a failed romance, but The Last Five Years won't or, maybe, can't do such a thing. Neither is blameless or completely to blame. These are two engaging characters with as many flaws as virtues, and we watch them live through moments that add up to a relationship that is equal parts lovely and doomed. It happened, and for better and for worse, that's worth singing about.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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